End Zone: 25 years ago, Nanuet HS went untied, unscored upon

Ah, yes, the sweet sounds,” says Rich Conklin, a gruff, gray-haired football coach listening to the whir of rewinding ribbon from an old game tape in his VCR. He looks around the reliquary that doubles as his film room, eyeing photographs, a gray West Point Cadet’s hat sitting atop a folded American flag and a wooden sign on the wall that reads: “Ball Game Today.”

He knows the reel by heart, anticipating the broadcaster’s comments regarding the Nanuet (N.Y.) High team he coached to perfection — unbeaten, untied, unscored upon — 25 years ago. Wind chimes clink outside his front door; helmets and pads crash when he presses play. He taunts the opposing play caller, watching as T.J. Ford, his holy terror, levels a receiver in the flat. Conklin’s eyes narrow with the hit.

“Don’t call that play anymore,” he says.

His matinee VHS viewing is masterpiece theatre. He fast-forwards and rewinds, pauses and stops, his Golden Knights — “The Nomad Knights” — of 1989, punctuating their historic season with one last punishing performance. They clash with the Bronxville High Broncos at Memorial Stadium in Mount Vernon, shutting them out, 21-0, to claim the Class C-D state championship. In between the blows delivered by the Knights on defense, commercials advancing an upcoming Mike Tyson fight flash across the television screen. Back after break, Ford lines up another Bronco after a catch and explodes through him.

“He didn’t even wrap up,” Conklin says. “It used to piss me off, but what was I going to say?”

The Berlin Wall fell 10 days earlier, but Nanuet’s steel curtain withstood every attempt to cross its goal line between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. The Knights went 10-0, crisscrossing the Tappan Zee Bridge and Rockland County roads to hang zeroes on Hudson Valley scoreboards, from Peekskill to Pearl River, Armonk to Ardsley.

They did it all on the road because their home field was being resurfaced, trekking 13 miles each way by bus daily to the Marian Shrine, a Catholic retreat center where the team ran through drills on a re-purposed pumpkin field past sunset. They threw six passes per game and carried the ball with blast runs in every direction. Grass stains served as merit badges. Hard hits earned “POW” helmet stickers. Tylenol eased the headaches after practice; pinched nerves weren’t uncommon. A season-long scoreboard glowed: Nanuet 239-Home 0.

“That would work for me any year,” Conklin says.

The Knights never repeated that feat, the only team in the nation to accomplish it in 1989. No player went on to play Division I football in college; no coach ascended the ranks. No commemorative sign hangs by the home field anymore, though one once did. Memories fresh in the minds of some were relegated to reels years ago. Runs between road flares, a fake field goal, game-saving tackles, punt returns called back, collarbones broken, spearing allegations and mud bowls won are all past. Conklin and Ford were feted inside Madison Square Garden at a Knicks game back then; Deacon John Maloney, a councilman, hailed them for making Nanuet “a little more recognized in the world.”

“Thank God that Nanuet is now known for something other than traffic on Route 59 and the Mall,” Maloney said.

The unbeaten players and coaches lived both sides of the coin flip in the years afterward. Chris Annesi, the quarterback, went on to serve in the Marine Corps in Japan, and escorted Attorney General Janet Reno in Washington, D.C. when stationed stateside. Ford suffered an ankle injury during a blocking drill one day at St. Cloud State in Minnesota, then shattered his heel in an all-terrain vehicle accident back home after he sped up a hill at 40 mph, narrowly escaping death at the end of his fall. His sporting days were done. James Maritato, a halfback, became “Little Guido” in Extreme Championship Wrestling, claiming a World Tag Team Belt with his signature move, the “Sicilian Slice.” One celebrated captain, Mike Hussey, endured a winless season in college as a Siena Saint.

None lost more than Conklin, though. He was a legendary figure for wins on the football fields with his teams and wrestling mats with individuals. Few accomplished more than his four sons, who excelled in both sports, but losses came unexpectedly. Two of the boys — first Chris and then Ryan — died in a five-month span. Rich later saw both of their images when he took a knee for pre-game prayers inside Nanuet’s locker room.

NYC PAPERS OUT. Social media use restricted to low res file max 184 x 128 pixels and 72 dpiRichard Harbus/for New York Daily News Members of Nanuet’s 1989 football team who accomplished all that they did on the road because their home field was being resurfaced.

“I often wonder,” Conklin says. “We’ve had our share of bad luck.”

On a recent afternoon, his greatest triumphs surround him inside the same house he was born in, a two-floor Colonial on Summit Place. The 1989 team — faces fresh, haircuts buzzed in a summer fashion — look out from a picture frame on his wall, and Conklin reaches into a manila folder. He pulls out a preseason letter addressed to “the loyal followers of Nanuet football.” He wrote the missive that summer when Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” topped the music charts. He calls the 1989 season the most challenging in school history and highlights a date with border rival Pearl River as a battle for the Little Brown Jug. There are “traditions to defend and scores to settle,” Conklin writes. He maintains that the coaches witness enthusiasm in bulk each day. He calls the schedule “an awesome assignment” of playing on the road each week, encouraging all interested to follow along the path.

“We hope your spirit will join us as we go on the road again, and again and again….”

Yours in football,

Rich Conklin

* * *

Mike Bohan, a member of the “Pit Bulls” secondary, sips from a glass of Glenlivet on the rocks at the Capital Grille by Grand Central. He recalls Camp Colang, a green, tree-shaded getaway located along the Delaware River in Lackawaxen, Pa. There was a cook — “Large Marge” — and mattresses Conklin referred to as the world’s cheapest. Conklin liked the Spartan experience for his team, and the remote space offered 68 acres when they arrived by bus that August. It was for training camp — triple sessions, technique work and offensive installments — but it was also about putting stakes in the ground. Each morning, in between two of the bungalow cabins where the Knights bunked, members of the Springfield Gardens High team, also on site, woke up the Knights with whoops and hollers. They pounded Nanuet’s walls just after sunrise.

“Wake up! Wake up! You sleepy heads!” the Springfield Gardens kids yelled.

Conklin could not convince the Springfield Gardens coach to halt his players’ chanting, and he was also concerned his Knights might retaliate. Nanuet coaches told their players to stay inside the bunk, not to confront their counterparts, but plots were made in between workout sessions. One night, after lights out, several veteran Knights ripped up the floorboards, cut holes in them and tied a rope in between the two bunks where the Springfield Gardens ran by. The Knights covered the rope with leaves. When morning broke, shouts were heard. Nanuet players manned their posts. They pulled the rope to trip the Springfield Gardens players, watching the screamers fall to the ground, one by one.

“We knew a couple of fat guys were laggards,” Bohan says. “We threw water on them.”

Conklin’s enlisted men included 31 players on varsity. There was a Jon Wayne, best known as ‘The Duke,’ at tight end. Hussey, a husky lineman, came from St. Anthony’s elementary school, and turned his mother, Sheila, from a concerned parent clenching rosary beads in the stands to a fan ringing a cowbell over three years. Bohan, son of a sanitation worker, patrolled the secondary. Tom Furlong , a lineman, was the son of an NFL kicker and carried voodoo dolls of his opponents’ onto the mats during wrestling season. Annesi, the youngest of four brothers, grew up running the hallways of the high school with teammate Rob Carbone while their parents watched game film with Conklin on Wednesday nights. Annesi and Carbone were ball boys together, collecting the tee after kickoffs and shivering in a shared overcoat on the sideline during rainstorms. They dreamed of wreaking havoc on the field someday.

NYC PAPERS OUT. Social media use restricted to low res file max 184 x 128 pixels and 72 dpiHoward Simmons/New York Daily News Coach Rich Conklin holds team photo of his undefeated 1989 Nanuet team.

“When you nail someone, there’s really no better feeling,” Annesi says. “I don’t know: Is that sick to think that way? I wanted nothing more than those ‘POW’ stickers.”

Hitting was the culture in Nanuet, a hamlet consisting of five square miles and 14,800 residents at the time. Ford relished the no-hiding element of it all. One of Conklin’s rules of thumb in coaching at Nanuet was that the tallest players were only good for shade. It was the shorter players — both in height and fuse length — who sparked the offense and defense. In 1989, every player was 6-foot or under except for reserve tight end Mike Garramone, who was 6-4. Four guys tipped the scale at 200 pounds or more. Nine starters played both ways. Ford stepped on the field at 5-9, 170 pounds. If his quarterback was quick enough, Conklin would have him pitch the ball out to Ford, then maneuver in front of Ford to block defenders. Hussey and Furlong manned the left side of the line. When push came to shove, that’s where Conklin was going. Ford carried them.

“He’d play through pain, through agony, through sore muscles and broken bones and never give an inch for any competitor,” Hussey says. “But once the game was over, T was the first to snap a towel, throw the water and rib another unmercifully.”

Teammates referred to Ford, who filled the Monster back position on defense and plowed over would-be tacklers on offense, as “Alien.” He was a three-sport thriller, dominating as a midfielder in lacrosse, steadying the offense as point guard in basketball. He moonlighted as a member of the National Honor Society, telling the local paper that he liked to “play the field” when it came to girls. The lasting impression he left on everyone, though, was with his helmet, the one he returned each year with chunks of paint missing. Conklin counted on Ford to set the tone, but pulled him from a drill early in camp because he knocked two teammates out. He delighted in locating his favorite alley between blockers, choosing the third and final option to explode on ball carriers.

“That way, you get a little more juice in your engine,” he says.

Players of all classes released energy just before the close of camp. Typically, lights were out at 10 p.m. with violators being called out of the bunks to perform low crawls across the grass for punishment, but the last night was “Psych Night.” Conklin huddled his players for a talk about dedicating the season to someone special, someone they might fight for when faced with the option of submitting in a game. At the same time, 300 yards away, his assistant coaches were positioning 10 road flares. They formed a chute — 10 yards wide — and placed tackling dummies at the end. Conklin led the group toward the gauntlet, and waved a flashlight to alert his coaching staff. The coaches then lit the flares, and Conklin ordered calm until he blew a whistle. The theme music from “Rocky” was cued up. They all crashed their helmets into each other, and one captain started the run down the chute, tackling the dummy. Teammates followed by class, one by one, charging down and lunging forward in the air. The other captain finished.

“Some kids were so pumped up they missed,” Conklin says. “Some flipped over the dummy. We didn’t want anyone to get hurt. It would be hard to explain to parents.”

Confessions were welcome at their next practice ground once they returned to Rockland County. It was because the home field was being refurbished that the coaches needed to find another home for the season. Girls teams were to stay on campus and use alternate fields, but football and boys soccer needed to travel to the Marian Shrine, a facility overseen by Salesian priests and the site of “Rosary Madonna,” a bronze statue of Jesus Christ’s mother that stands 48-feet high and weighs 6½ tons. It was holy ground for a hard-hitting group. Assistant coach Richie King got Nanuet’s team in the door for a small charitable donation and promise to maintain the field. The Knights bussed there each day after school, filling the seats with players and coaches, stuffing in equipment.

“If there was a fire on that bus, you weren’t getting out the back,” Annesi says.

Conklin ran their afternoons into evening, turning on the bus lights after dark to keep going. Each Friday, the team returned back to Nanuet, ready for their Saturday afternoon tilt. They ate dinner at Mama Palermo’s — an Italian restaurant in town — and returned to Conklin’s room at the school for one last film session at 7 p.m. From there, they were to go straight home and coaches called houses 30 minutes later. Parents could not vouch for their sons, only the boys’ voices were acceptable. In between, though, unknown to Conklin, Bohan and another teammate snuck out containers of eggs from McDonald’s and Annesi dropped off teammates around town in his brown Plymouth Volare. Guerrilla egg fights broke out. If they saw a teammate, they pulled over, hid in bushes and pounced when ready. Egg yolk and cracked shells covered Nanuet.

“It was ambush style,” Bohan says. “If you got hit, you were screwed. You just had to take it…until the next week.”

* * *

Gus Graziano, a former Marine and New York City police officer, sits at his kitchen table in a house overlooking the Hudson River. He wears a Marine Corps hoodie emblazoned “Don’t Tread On Me” and talks about the first game of the 1989 season. He was a member of the Pearl River Pirates then, a live wire dressed in red cleats, a bandana on his head and a visor over his facemask. He ran across the field, shooting imaginary pistols into the air. He was everything the Nomad Knights were not allowed to be.

“I stood out because I was a s–t talker,” Graziano says. “They were very professional. I played hard, but you couldn’t stop them. They were beyond disciplined.”

Pearl River lacked much of what Nanuet offered. The Pirates lost to Nanuet the previous season, 18-0, went 0-9 overall while their field was replaced, hired a new coach and implemented a new Wing T offense. None of that changed anything against Nanuet. Despite the game being delayed two days due to heavy rains, the Knights found rhythm early, moving the ball down the field with waggle passes and sweeps. Ford opened the scoring with a 44-yard catch-and-run after the Pirates blew a zone coverage, and requested Conklin, a one-way-conversation coach, call more sweeps. Conklin eyed Ford.

“Are you telling me how to run my team?” Conklin asked.

“I would never do that, Coach,” Ford said.

They ran a few more sweeps and won, 25-0. Next up was Spackenkill High. The Nomads navigated their way across the Hudson, an hour’s drive from home, and came back with a 21-0 win. Momentum was building, but Peekskill High was expected to be more formidable in Week 3. While Pearl River piled up mistakes, Peekskill gave the ball away, mishandling the opening kickoff and flailing from there. Mike Brennan recovered two fumbles. Annesi picked off a pass; Furlong blocked a punt. Nanuet won the turnover battle, 5-0, then took the game, 18-0, running behind Ford and controlling the clock, a ticking foe for the home team. There was little exotic to how the Nomads advanced.

“If we ran blast and got four yards, we were running blast again,” he says.

Goose eggs begat goose bumps, and Annesi, forever sleepless the night before games, needed to have his nerves knocked out of him each week. The first play call was usually a quarterback sneak so that he could absorb a hit. He was even more nervous in the secondary, recognizing the significance of the scoreless streak as weeks went by, but Ford was the opposite, taking a punt back against Westlake in Week 4 where he leapt over a defender — striking what resembled a Heisman Trophy pose — on a touchdown return that was called back due to a penalty. No matter. Nanuet still won, 28-0.

“Our linebackers hit (Ford) at the line of scrimmage,” Westlake coach Rich Beckley told reporters. “We had the right defense. We just didn’t have the right players.”

Nanuet cruised to easy wins the next two weeks, zipping Croton (26-0) and Ardsley (27-0), but Week 7 almost saw a slipup. Against Pelham, Carbone, a safety, stepped up. The Pelham quarterback hit a wideout on a hook-and-ladder play in the fourth quarter; the receiver appeared headed for a touchdown, but Carbone tackled him. Pelham subsequently fumbled, and the Knights finished them off, 32-0. They turned their attention to Byram Hills, the state’s top-ranked team and winner of 17 straight.

Byram Hills served as a benchmark for the Knights. Nanuet took exception to a 56-0 loss to Byram Hills two years prior, citing a late score as piling on. The Knights closed the gap to lose 7-0 the next season, and Conklin liked to plant class warfare propaganda into motivational speeches, referring to Westchester County as “Bestchester” and carrying on a former assistant coach’s rallying cry: “Rip the tweed!”

It was homecoming week for Nanuet, and supporters flooded the stands. Rain had fallen in the days before, and the turf was choppy. On the opening kickoff, the ball died on the grass when it landed. Byram Hills took possession, but Carbone, leading the team dressed in all black but for the golden helmet — jarred it loose from tailback Chris Tateo. Bob Gallagher recovered, and the Knights were in business. Three plays got them nowhere; Conklin sent the field goal unit on to kick. It was snapped to Annesi, the holder, and he executed a fake, standing up and finding Ford, who cut across the middle after a 10-yard curl route. Ford pivoted and had eight yards to go. He slipped into the end zone.

“I wasn’t sure if I had made it,” Ford says.

Uncertainty stalked the Nomads over the remainder of the game. On a drive in the fourth quarter, Bohan was flagged for a late hit, allowing Byram Hills inside the 10-yard line, the farthest any team had advanced to that point in the season. Bohan redeemed himself on the next down, sniffing out a run to the right for a loss. Then, with Byram Hills looking end zone, Bohan picked off the play-action pass and crumbled to the grass.

“Oskie!” teammates yelled, their reference to an interception.

Hussey closed out the win with a sack of the quarterback on one last Hail Mary attempt. It was the Knights’ biggest victory yet, and they maintained their balance against Eastchester the next week, winning, 34-0. The final battle was at Mount Vernon against Bronxville. It was the first night game of the season, and Nanuet’s team arrived to an unexpected welcome. Nyack High and North Rockland High played earlier games and won. In celebrating, they greeted Nanuet as a neighbor. When the Nomads, wearing wool overcoats, walked off their bus, the North Rockland fans gave them a standing ovation.

“I can feel the chills still,” center Jason Kavountzis says.

Little affected Ford. He rushed for two touchdowns in the second quarter, and sealed the game with a 70-yard sprint, cutting middle and then bouncing left. He looked back and punched his fist to the side at the 8-yard line, finishing the game with 242 yards. On the year, he scored 165 of the team’s 239 points. After 74 practices, two scrimmages and 10 games in 91 days, they were champs. The reveling Nomads returned home by bus.

“Nothing speaks louder than a shutout,” Hussey says.

* * *

Lunchtime at The Shannon Rose, a pub and restaurant in Ramsey, N.J., just over the state line from Rockland County, and Ford, now a father of three and the northeast regional sales director with Stryker, fingers the statistics sheet from 1989.

“Sixty-one passes,” he says. “That’s more than I would have thought.”

The Nomads controlled the clock with their running game and defense that year, but they conceded command of time in the years since. The next season’s team surrendered a touchdown early on, shedding the weight of continuing the streak. Ford’s brief stint at Division II St. Cloud State served as the farthest any player went. A sign emblazoned “Welcome to Nanuet, Home of the Golden Knights, 1989 State Champions” stood at the intersection of Route 59 and Middletown Road, then was affixed to a press box above the field. It was removed during renovations in recent years. Phil Carbone, then an assistant and now the head coach since Conklin stepped down in 2010, asked a groundskeeper about the whereabouts of the sign on a recent evening after practice.

“It disintegrated,” the worker says. “All gone.”

Many of the Nomads remain in the Nanuet area. Louis Sciortino owns a collision shop in town. Annesi’s nerves recently returned as he started a new building engineer’s job at 1 World Trade Center. Hussey works for Con-Ed. They all got together for a celebration of their unbeaten season’s 25th anniversary on Oct. 18, taking in the Little Brown Jug game on the field they never got to play on in 1989. The current Golden Knights, some donning “POW” stickers on their helmets, shut out Pearl River, 28-0, that afternoon. Conklin sat in the stands alongside Hussey’s mom, dressed in black and gold. The players talked cowbells and collisions, then retired to the Elks Lodge across the street for a celebration later at night. Conklin ran into one player at a bagel store the next morning. The player looked haggard. He told Conklin that some were out until 4 a.m.

“Maybe I should have put curfew back on,” Conklin says.

Conklin left Nanuet High after 35 years as head football coach. His record was 218-96-2, but he felt the need to step away, in part, to mourn. His son Chris died from a heart attack in Aug. 2009; Ryan collapsed and died five months later. Before the father’s last game as coach, he had decided to retire from the school. He informed his assistants the day before the game, but there was a hiccup prior to the opening kickoff. Conklin went to the bathroom by the garage, and the handle fell off when he tried to get out. The game plans were in his hands. He banged on the door and yelled. A custodian happened to walk by and heard him. Conklin got out; his team won with a goal-line stand on his last series.

“That was time for me to step out,” he says. “No regrets.”

Football wobbled back into his life eventually. Two years ago, Clarkstown South coach Mike Scarpelli ran into Conklin at a local supermarket. Scarpelli remembered driving by Nanuet’s field and the 1989 sign. He recalled the unscored-upon campaign, and contacted Conklin again. They talked about teaming up, and Conklin became South’s offensive coordinator. Kavountzis attended a game, and reported back to the Nomads.

“Blast runs and waggle passes,” he says. “I sat there telling my wife what was going to happen before each play.”

On a recent afternoon, Conklin coached his Vikings, telling a player failing to scoop up loose balls to bring a fork to the next practice. Rain started to fall; lightning crashed. Players and coaches went inside, walked through plays in the gym for 20 minutes and then went back down to a lower field to go over defensive assignments. “We are nomads,” assistant coach Bill Kennedy says. “We go wherever we can play.”

Conklin let the mention pass without comment. At practice’s end, he hopped in his car and drove familiar suburban roads back to his home, the one that still carries a banner supporting Nanuet’s team. He returns to his trophy room by the television each night. There is a photo of his son Ryan, all of 6 then, hanging on a wall in a space across the hall from where he died. It is a still shot from the 1989 bowl game. Onlookers wear winter coats and woolen hats. Ryan wears a black hooded sweatshirt with “Nanuet Football” written on the front. He looks down at the field, straight at anyone eyeing the photograph. There is a button on his chest. It reads: “GO KNIGHTS.”


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